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Death is inevitable, but damnation is not

On the Readings for Sunday, June 25, 2017

“The Last Judgment” (c.1431) by Fra Angelico [WikiArt.org]

Readings:
• Jer 20:10-13
• Psa 69:8-10, 14, 17, 33-35
• Rom 5:12-15
• Matt 10:26-33

Recently, while watching a basketball game on television, I was horrified when a commercial came on that was completely inappropriate for my young children. Actually, I thought it was inappropriate for anyone. I say “horrified” because the commercial was for a horror movie, which appeared to be unrelentingly bloody and violent. I had to wonder, after hastily changing the channel: “Why are such movies so prevalent and popular?”

There are several possible answers to that question, but I think for some people viewing horror films is an act of defiance. What is being defied? Death. Isn’t it strange how we often go out of our way to avoid thinking or talking about death in a serious way? And isn’t it equally revealing that when death is “addressed,” it is often in the form of audacious, outlandish films and television shows? It reminds me of how arguments are often carried out: by creating an absurd caricature of the opponent’s position so that it can be easily addressed and dismissed.

Christians, of all people, should and must take death seriously. Death is, after all, a certain fact of life whose dark presence cannot be dealt with by relying on power, fame, or multiple lines of credit. And Christians should know that man is helpless in the face of sin and death unless freed by the power of God and the “gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ,” as St. Paul puts in today’s reading from his epistle to the Romans.

But there is another aspect for us to ponder: the actual promise of persecution and even death, a sober promise given by Jesus to his disciples on many occasions. Today’s Gospel reading comes in the middle of a chapter—Matthew 10—in which Jesus talked at length about persecution, martyrdom, the sword, and the Cross. He was preparing the disciples for the difficult days and years ahead, in which all but one of the Apostles would be martyred (Saint John died of old age), and many others would give up their lives for their Master.

Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his powerful book The Moment of Christian Witness (Ignatius Press, 1994), writes of Matthew 10: “The underlying idea of Christ’s speech is the Cross; it is both the point of departure for his argument and the goal toward which he expressly invites his followers to strive. … According to this speech made by Christ, persecution constitutes the normal condition of the Church in her relation to the world, and martyrdom is the normal condition of the professed Christian.”

Von Balthasar notes that many Christians, of course, won’t endure physical persecution or martyrdom. But the fact that such violence and bloodshed is taking place today—in Africa, in the Middle East, in Asia—should not escape our attention. On the contrary, it should be something that we consider and pray about on a regular basis. As our brothers and sisters in Christ suffer and are, in some cases, put to death, we should pray they will be given the grace and fortitude they need. And we can ask ourselves: “Would I be able to do that? Would I acknowledge my heavenly Father in the face of death? Or would I deny Him?”

Such difficult questions shouldn’t make us fearful. They should put into perspective the purpose of our lives and the meaning of eternal life. This point was made by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical on hope. He noted that many people seem to reject faith in the afterlife simply because they want their present lives to go on forever. “But to live always,” he stated, “without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable” (par 10).

Put another way, life without God is the true horror movie. And pretending that death is a joke or a problem to be “solved” will only end badly. We must see death, but not fear it, knowing that death is inevitable, but damnation is not.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in a slightly different form in the June 22, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

About Carl E. Olson 1055 Articles

Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the “Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King” Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to “Our Sunday Visitor” newspaper, “The Catholic Answer” magazine, “The Catholic Herald”, “National Catholic Register”, “Chronicles”, and other publications.

4 Comments

  1. An vital insight. “I think for some people viewing horror films is an act of defiance. What is being defied? Death”. Often I’ve felt those who regularly take high risk are living on an adrenaline rush. I climbed the last 200 yds from the ski lodge to the top of Mt Pilatus Switzerland with some friends. I was the last to start up because of my fear of height, which having overcome I experienced the height of elation. It is I think the imaginary conquest of death. And fear. A magnificent mirage. The Gospel is an admonition by Christ to deny fear. An emotion we often objectify. The reason FDR said famously “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But Christ in line with your article says Fear only him who can cast your soul into Gehenna. There are two deaths. It’s the second one we must avoid. For all those challenging death and literally feeling more alive as I did we simply forestall. “Life without God is the true horror”. Damnation is eternal death of all that is good. All that is left is remorse and suffering. It’s the reason now older and somewhat wiser that this dreadful reality sometimes wakes me at night to pray for my own and the salvation of those who are oblivious. Especially now that the repeated emphatic Gospel testament on eternal damnation is being discounted by many Hierarchy including the Pontiff. I can’t say everyone should, yet there is no more efficacious concern than to emulate Christ’s willingness to sacrifice.

    • Two of the devil’s greatest victories in today’s world are getting people that he doesn’t exist and that hell doesn’t exist. I loved Padre Pio’s reply when someone said to him ” I don’t believe in hell”. Padre Pio said ” You will when you get there”.

      • A prelate recently gushed “I’m confident all will be saved.” Would that were true. It’s a denial of reality. The new gospel antithetical to that revealed in Christ. The evil effect is delusion and amorality.

  2. Nothing surprising. The present culture is that of “death culture” (John Paul II)ex.abortion, euthanasia plus in most of the world Regimes(China, Iran,…) rule with exterminations of their opponents like in the Nazi or Communism Era. The way of the cross is followed only by a small % of a population that leads to …Hell.Simple! My today’s, very fresh example. In the homily, I did not hear anything as regarding “Pride” March in GT as 1st(Jeremiah) and also Gospel’s would suggest as a warning if Church (and pastors) sleeps! Regimes like such pastors. In this parade PM (of Canada) took a place. The first sentence of Canadian Const.,the Preamble says: “Canadian Nation is founded on principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God…”Hm, it seems just a question of time why such society must stop to exist- the result of the sin against the Holy Spirit (no definition in CAthesim!)To remind, the former traditional explanations are useless (the lack of hope, sinning with the goal of still getting an absolution) because they do not refer to a practical Christian and not- a Christian does not care at all about sin! This sin is a very practical as the stubbornness against the obvious data (Matt 12:22-37)and absolute logical inference, “modus ponens”!This sin looks like Satan’s “first”-eternal sin contra God. Of course, poor sheep do not know it by themselves and pastor fails to remind them.

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